The Basics of Writing Young Adult Fiction
Although Young Adult fiction usually has just one section in a book store, it isn’t a genre in itself and shouldn’t be referred to as such. Fiction for young adults has within it the same broad and open-minded range of genres and themes as adult fiction, from dystopian to historical, paranormal to supernatural, horror to romance, and often combines several genres in one work of fiction. This is a guide to getting into the mindset of writing specifically for a Young Adult (YA) market.
Know your audience
The age range of YA fiction is mildly disputed, but lies within the confines of 11 and 18 years, and can be further split into two groups: Younger YA, sometimes called ‘coming of age’ fiction, is mainly read by 11 to 14 year-olds; whereas older YA is notably edgier and aimed at teenagers between 15 and 18. To know which half of the YA spectrum you want to write for, consider the age of your protagonist. Children and teenagers want to learn of what is to come in their near future and therefore will most often read up. If your protagonist is aged between 17 and 21 you’re writing for the older half of young adults, and you’ll likely to be dealing with themes such as sex and under age pregnancy, alcohol and drugs, abuse, pressure to be independent and questions of mortality.
If you see your main character as being between 14 and 16 years old then you are writing for the coming of age portion of the group, where finding their place in the world is often the focus of your protagonist. Your fiction could deal with topics such as isolation and loneliness, bullying and morals, sibling rivalry and pressure to achieve. Many authors expand the ages of their secondary characters so that although the protagonist may be 15, an appealing age for the younger YA readers, his or her best friends, side-kicks, love interests and enemies can be anything up to 21 years old, to attract the attention of the older YA reader and broaden the target reading spectrum.
Pick up the pace
YA fiction has to compete with the endless distractions of the developing teenage mind. It’s the decade in all our lives where we experience our most ‘firsts’—our first love and heartbreak, our first best friends and bitter betrayals, our first massive mistakes and cringing regrets, and therefore any book for the YA reader needs to compete with life experience and offer them something they feel is worth reading. As a result YA fiction is crammed full of character action, with a dip in detailed description but a rise in dynamic dialogue and honest emotion.
A ‘hook’ in fiction is a tool usually used in the first sentence or paragraph to catch the reader’s attention, peak their interest, give them a question and then leave it unanswered, all to reel them in and keep them turning the pages. YA fiction, however, has not only one or two hooks, but is a raging carnival of anticipation and unanswered questions. There will certainly be a hook right in the opening paragraph, but there will also be one at the end of each and every chapter, urging the teenage reader to continue through the story.
Be as present as possible
The YA reader usually doesn’t care to read about what has happened in the past because it has no relevance to their current lives, and so almost all YA fiction is written in present tense. This allows the reader to become more integral to the plot and closer to the protagonist, as the story will unravel for them both at the same time and be experienced together. This doesn’t mean that past tense should be completely overlooked, as I have read several successful YA novels written in past tense that have engrossed me so overwhelmingly I’ve momentarily forgotten it is a story being told. But this is because they have written it as such; the past tense is cleverly hidden and concealed, only pointed out to add extra anticipation in moments where the protagonist thinks something along the lines of ‘I wish I had known then how important that discovery was’ or ‘if only I had noticed it back then, everything could have been avoided.’
Cloak your heroes
Young adults know they are not perfect, and do not want to read about a cookie-cutter protagonist who does everything correctly first time and is nothing like them. That doesn’t mean your protagonist can’t ultimately rise to a challenge and succeed, but they need to face realistic problems along the way such as self-doubt and lack of confidence and knowledge. Protagonists in YA stories usually start off at the bottom of the food chain, feeling unwanted or unheard or under-valued, and are given opportunity, however perilous, to prove to themselves and everyone around them just how incredible they can be. By the end of your YA story your lead character can blossom into a hero or heroine, but make their hurdles and mistakes along the way ring true with familiarity to their teenage readers.
Use your memories
No matter how long ago your teenager years may seem, we all need to be method writers when it comes to writing for young adults. We have memories from our youth of exhilarating joy and nail-biting anxiety, ridiculous excitement and cringing moments of embarrassment and regret. We’ve all lived the life of a YA protagonist and have first-hand knowledge of the journey, difficulties, blunders, and elation, a life where our biggest worries were our hairstyles and brand of trainers, and our wildest dreams stretched only as far as our final school year.
Young Adult writing is, by and large, similar to writing for adults, but focusing on your intended market will help shape your writing into something that teenagers will connect with. We all have it within us to write a meaningful and realistic YA story—all we have to do is bring out our inner teenager.
© 2016 Rebecca Delphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.